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The Intrepid herself was a fire-ship, having been supplied with combustibles, a mass of which, ready to be converted into the means of destroying other vessels of the enemy, if the opportu nity should offer, lay in barrels on her quarter deck, covered only with a tarpaulin.
"With destruction thus encompassing them within and without, Decatur and his brave followers were unmoved. Calmly they put forth the necessary exertion, breasted the Intrepid off with spars, and, pressing on their sweeps, caused her slowly to withdraw from the vicinity of the burning mass. A gentle breeze from the land came auspiciously at the same moment, and wafted the Intrepid beyond the reach of the flames, bearing with it, however, a shower of burning embers, fraught with danger to a vessel laden with combustibles, had not discipline, order, and calm self-possession been at hand for her protection. Soon this peril was also left behind, and Decatur and his followers were at a sufficient distance to contemplate securely the spectacle which the Philadelphia presented. Hull, spars, and rigging were now enveloped in flames. As the metal of her guns became heated, they were discharged in succession from both sides, serving as a brilliant salvo in honor of the victory, and not harmless for the Tripolitans, as her starboard battery was fired directly into the town.
"The town itself, the castles, the minarets of the mosques, and the shipping in the harbour were all brought into distinct view by the splendor of the conflagration. It served also to reveal to the enemy the cause of their disaster in the little Intrepid, as she slowly withdrew from the harbour. The shot of the shipping and castles fell thickly around her, throwing up columns of spray, which the brilliant light converted into a new ornament of the scene. Only one shot took effect, and that passed through her top-gallant sail. Three hearty American cheers were now given in mingled triumph and derision. Soon after, the boats of the Siren joined company, and assisted in towing the Intrepid out of the harbour.". pp. 77-79.
The effect of this daring exploit was at once to place the name of Decatur high upon the list of the most distinguished naval officers. His commodore immediately recommended him for instantaneous promotion to the rank of post-captain; the government at home readily adopted the suggestion, and his commission was sent to him, dated on the day of the burning of the Philadelphia. His brother officers, seniors in command, who were passed over by this promotion, willingly acquiesced in it, and Congress passed a com
plimentary resolution, ordering a sword to be presented to him. Before the news arrived in the Mediterranean of the honors thus heaped upon him, he had earned a fresh title to them by still more brilliant achievements in the harbour of Tripoli.
Commodore Preble had made preparations, though with a very insufficient force, to bombard the town, and to make a simultaneous attack with gunboats upon the Tripolitan flotilla, which could not be assailed by the larger vessels, as it was protected by reefs and shoals. Six of these boats, very defective in construction and equipment, had been borrowed for this purpose of the king of Naples. They were arranged in two divisions of three boats each, the first division being commanded by Somers, and the second by Decatur. The object of attack was a flotilla of nineteen gunboats, protected by a ten-gun brig, several armed schooners and galleys, and batteries on shore that mounted one hundred and fifteen heavy guns. There is hardly a record in naval history of an attack made with such disparity of force, and crowned with entire success. Each of Decatur's boats singled out an opponent, ran on board of her, and carried her after a desperate fight, hand to hand, with pikes and cutlass
As Decatur was conveying his own prize out of the harbour, news was brought to him that his brother's boat had engaged and captured one of the largest of the enemy's squadron. She had struck, but as James Decatur was stepping on board to take possession, he was shot through the head by her commander. Grief and indignation urged Decatur to an imprudent and reckless attempt to obtain revenge. Leaving most of his crew in the prize, he pushed off in his own boat towards that of his brother's murderer, pursued her within the enemy's lines, ran on board, and jumped on her deck, followed only by one officer and nine men. This fearful inequality of numbers made the result of the conflict doubtful for twenty minutes; three of the Americans were already disabled by wounds.
"At length Decatur was able to single out the treacherous commander, conspicuous no less by gigantic size than by the ferocity with which he fought, and to meet him face to face. Decatur was armed with a cutlass, the Turk with a heavily ironed boarding-pike. As the latter made a thrust at Decatur, he struck it violently with his cutlass, in the hope of severing the
head; but his cutlass, coming in contact with the iron, broke at the hilt, and left him without a weapon. Many a brave man thus disarmed might have turned to seek another weapon. But Decatur stood his ground, and, attempting with his right arm to parry the next thrust of his antagonist, received the point of it in his arm and breast. Tearing the weapon from the wound, he succeeded, likewise, by a sudden jerk, in wresting it from the hands of his adversary, who immediately grappled him; and, after a fierce and prolonged struggle, both fell with violence on the deck, Decatur being uppermost. During this time, the crews, rushing to the aid of their respective commanders, joined in furious conflict round their persons. A Tripolitan officer, who had got behind Decatur, aimed an unseen blow at his head, which must have decided his fate, had not a young man by the name of Reuben James, who had lost the use of both arms by wounds, rushed in and intercepted the descending cimeter with his own head, thus rescuing his beloved commander by an act of heroic self-sacrifice which has never been surpassed.
"Just then the Tripolitan, exerting to the uttermost his superior strength, succeeded in turning Decatur, and, getting upon him, held him to the deck with an iron clutch of his left hand, whilst, thrusting his right beside him, he drew from his sash the shorter of two yataghans, which, for the very purpose of such close work, he carried in the same sheath. The moments of Decatur's existence seemed numbered; scarce an interval remained to breathe a prayer for mercy in another world; a second brother was about to perish beneath the rage of the fierce Tripolitan. But the cool courage and fertile resources of Decatur came to his rescue in this extremity. Disengaging his left hand, he caught the right of the Tripolitan, stayed the yataghan as it was about to drink his blood, and, thrusting his own right hand into his pantaloons' pocket, suceeeded in cocking a pistol which he had there, and, giving it the proper direction, fired. The Tripolitan relaxed his hold, and Decatur, disengaging himself from the heap of wounded and slain which the struggle had gathered around him, stood again that day a victor on the enemy's deck." pp. 91–93.
We would gladly follow Commander Mackenzie's clear and spirited account of the other engagements before Tripoli, in which Decatur fully sustained his now brilliant reputation, and which finally compelled the Bashaw to make peace on reasonable terms. But we have said and quoted enough to show the character and merits of Decatur, and the attractiveness of this biography of him, which is a model of lively
The remainder of the
narrative and vivid description. work, as it is mostly occupied with an account of some brilliant naval actions in the war of 1812, the story of which is already familiar to most American readers, may be passed over very hurriedly. The capture of the Macedonian and the loss of the President almost equally enhanced the reputation of Decatur, and showed that the glare of uninterrupted success was not necessary to the continuance of his popularity and fame.
In one respect, the successful issue of the Tripolitan war proved rather an injury than a benefit to the American navy. It encouraged the preposterous theory, that fortifications and gunboats were sufficient for coast defence, while cruising vessels were costly superfluities. The excitement of party politics first gave currency to this pernicious error, and Congress blindly followed it for several years. The consequence was, that, at the beginning of the last war with England, our naval force consisted of five frigates, two of which were unseaworthy, and a few smaller vessels. A law passed some time before had reduced the number of seamen on the peace establishment to what was hardly the complement of a single ship of the line. While the English fleets were sweeping the seas, the cabinet thought it imprudent for this petty force to venture out of harbour; though we cannot see why they dreaded the loss of an armament which they believed to be worthless. The spirited remonstrances of Captains Bainbridge and Stewart prevented this craven suggestion from going into effect; the ships were allowed to sail, and in less than six months the little navy had fought itself into a degree of popularity and renown which the politicians of no subsequent day have dared to attack.
Naval contests are the most brilliant and imposing of all the forms of war. They are attended with much of the pomp and circumstance of battle, with much that appeals strongly to the imagination, and kindles some of the most generous and noble feelings of our nature. We may raise the gorgeous curtain of victory, it is true, and see behind it enough of the sickening details of bloodshed and personal suffering to inspire a general detestation of warlike triumphs. But these are smaller, in proportion to the brilliancy of the result obtained, than the frightful consequences of a battle in which large armies are arrayed against each other; and they are ac
companied by many circumstances that dignify and support the sufferers, and lessen the sense of bereavement to the survivors. Patriotic and chivalrous sentiments are more fully developed in the naval than the land service; the inevitable horrors of a conflict are never aggravated by personal hate; and the generous combatants themselves so willingly barter suffering and death for fame, that we are more inclined to congratulate than to pity them. The sailor identifies himself with his ship and his country, and exults so heartily in their triumph that he feels not his own wounds, and the near approach even of the king of terrors cannot appall him. And the fury of actual conflict is so quickly followed by the generous feeling of pity and respect for the vanquished, that the injury already done seems almost to have been involuntary; the nobleness of the victor makes us forget the stain on the homicide. In several instances, as in that of the Hornet and the Peacock, some of the conquerors have sacrificed their own lives in the attempt to rescue a drowning enemy. The code of naval etiquette, both before and after the real engagement, preserves some of the noblest features of the institution of chivalry. We offer no apology for the horrors of war, however disguised; but if the progress of civilization and Christianity cannot do away with them entirely, let us pray that they may be confined to the sea.
Commander Mackenzie's book is a fine specimen of naval biography, thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his calling. To our own seamen it must become what Southey's fascinating Life of Nelson has long been to the members of the British navy, the text-book of excellence in the service, the authentic and striking portrait of the favorite hero of the profession. Our author, indeed, has this advantage over Southey, that, while he writes with equal fluency and spirit, his long experience at sea, and his sympathy with a brother officer and sailor, give a precision and vivacity to his record of naval exploits which a landsman can never obtain. If he has fallen a little into the common error of excessive admiration of his subject, the judicious reader will easily make the necessary deductions from the eulogy, and pardon the natural and characteristic enthusiasm which sometimes distorts the writer's vision. This fault is most apparent in the too lenient notice that he takes of the great stain upon Decatur's life and character, to which we have already alluded. The prac